It was just another ordinary Wednesday afternoon at UC Berkeley. The few students who were still on campus were scurrying home past by the entrance to Haas Pavilion, which hid the low-hanging autumn sun.
In its shadow stood another ordinary Cal student: Christopher Grey, or “C.J.,” as his friends call him, the starting left-back on the Cal men’s soccer team. Dressed in the student-athlete uniform — sweats, a jacket and a blue and gray backpack with “Cal” embroidered on the back — C.J. was unassuming. Unlike a 6’8” basketball player or a 250-pound shot putter, he did not stand out.
But C.J., a junior from San Jose, has never been one to stand out.
“I feel like I’m a pretty boring person,” he said. “I just go to class, go to office hours, go to practice, show up, study late — sometimes too late — and then do it all over again.”
Put that way, the left-back might seem like a “pretty boring person.” But C.J.’s unassuming words do not reveal the long road he has walked to get here.
A natural athlete, he began kicking a soccer ball around in his hometown — a neighborhood near Kingston, Jamaica — when he was just three years old.
As a child, C.J. modeled his game after the stars of the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga, incorporating skills like slide tackling into his repertoire from a very young age.
Soon after his family’s arrival in the Bay Area, C.J.’s father signed him up for a team in the American Youth Soccer Organization, or AYSO.
After a few years, it was clear that C.J. was talented enough to compete with some of the best soccer players in the Bay Area, and eventually joined De Anza Force Soccer Club. After a stint there, he moved to his local club: the San Jose Earthquakes Academy.
By the time he arrived in Berkeley, C.J. had built quite the resume. He had seized upon the opportunity to play with and against some of the best youth soccer players in the U.S. and the world, earning two call-ups to the U.S. under-14 team, as well as call-ups to the U.S. under-18 and Jamaica under-20 national teams.
Now a junior studying data science, Grey has started in 46 of Cal’s 51 games since 2017, earning him a position as a veteran on the team before he even begins his senior season.
While he acknowledges his Jamaican roots, that aspect of his identity does not solely define him. Even after a journey that has seen him immigrate to a new country, put in years of hard work and become a key player for a decorated NCAA Division I soccer program, C.J. does not sing his own praises.
Far from it.
If you visit C.J.’s profile page on the Cal men’s soccer website, you’ll immediately notice that he is in the background of his own profile picture. In front of him is sophomore forward Alonzo Del Mundo, a skillful star of the team. A blurry image of C.J. graces the backdrop, a bright orange captain’s armband sliding off of his left sleeve.
It is surprising, to say the least, that the picture does not focus on C.J. in action — especially considering his regular appearances in the first team.
But after speaking with C.J. and his parents, the image seems to sum him up perfectly: seldom the main character but, instead, a true team player.
To be sure, C.J. is a forceful presence on the field. A strong, quick left-back, he is everywhere at once, lending support in both the attacking and defensive thirds of the pitch. But while the junior certainly played a pivotal role in the Bears’ surprise NCAA playoff tournament appearance, he’s not one to take credit.
In his words, “I would say I’m kind of quiet, so I just let my playing do the talking.”
While the prospect of playing professionally is alluring, the camaraderie of the soccer team is one of the main reasons he still plays.
“I think having that brotherhood and having those people to move through life with is something that I admire, especially with the people in my class,” C.J. said. “I have known some of them since Quakes … So just having those relationships is something that I really enjoy and treasure.”
At a time when boastfulness is not just accepted, but rewarded with attention and praise, modesty is all the more valuable — perhaps not to the humble individual in question, but to the people around him.
For some, those personal costs that come with remaining humble are simply too high. For C.J., humility is the whole point.
“I just try to do my job most of the time,” C.J. said. “Nothing extravagant or flamboyant; I just try to play my role, show up every day and work as hard as I can, regardless of whether I’m starting or not, so that I can benefit the team as a whole.”
Juggling the many responsibilities of a student athlete while dealing with the stress of challenging classes, one might expect C.J.’s favorite TV show to be something lighthearted: perhaps a comedy such as “Parks and Recreation” or an uplifting reality show like “Queer Eye.”
C.J.’s favorite show? The legal drama “Suits.”
Even when he’s relaxing, it’s all business.
C.J.’s inclination for work pervades his life. The third-year student has earned a reputation among his teammates for being studious, maybe a little too studious.
“My teammates always tell me, ‘You’re always in the library, you’ve got to come hang out with us,’ and I think that’s a good thing to have,” C.J. said.
Someone with C.J.’s drive might be motivated by the prospect of making it big: signing a lucrative MLS contract one day, or working his way up at a massive tech company in Silicon Valley for reasons of self-interest — for the notoriety and money.
And while he is certainly capable of achieving those goals, he isn’t as concerned with arriving as he is with the impact he has on others along the way.
In other words, fulfilling his American dream has little to do with himself; rather, it means doing right by the people near and dear to him — his family and his teammates.
“Working hard each day, not giving up and just continuing to go through the process and doing my best and representing them in the right way — through my actions and through the things that I say, the relationships that I have — I think that’s something that I always think about before I’m about to do something,” C.J. said.
As a first-generation American, much of C.J.’s story revolves around opportunity and, more specifically, his unwillingness to pass up on opportunities. Reflecting on his Jamaican roots, the junior acknowledged the role it has played in developing his attitude toward work.
“I’ve been back to Jamaica a few times, which has made me grateful for the things I have here. Even if it’s just the daily grind of going to UC Berkeley, I’m grateful for that,” C.J. said.
Amid all the distractions and opportunities to boast about his many achievements at such a young age, C.J.’s faith keeps him grounded.
“I think it’s the biggest component of my life,” he said. “I try to live it out every single day through my actions and the way that I conduct myself and talk to people. Trying to be as humble as I can on the field and work as hard as I can in the classroom, and having that as a backstop to lean on in difficult times, which Cal will bring you inevitably. I think it’s been good.”
Cal’s left-back has accomplished a lot in his time with the Bears, but his success hasn’t gone to his head. For C.J.’s parents, his unwillingness to give up on the principles that have guided him throughout his life — humility and trust in God — is what makes them the most proud of him.
When asked what he would like to be remembered for after leaving UC Berkeley, C.J. didn’t mention breaking records or scoring goals. Instead, he wants to be remembered for being the best teammate he could possibly be.
“Coming to Cal, everyone works extremely hard academically and we’re also working extremely hard on the pitch,” C.J. said. “I continue to work hard on the pitch and work for the person beside me. I think just having that sense that I was someone who worked hard in the classroom and worked hard on the field and did everything he can to achieve that excellence is something that is always good to be remembered for.”